This is the fourth posting of five about how the BC Local Elections Campaign Financing Act (LECFA) will impact the upcoming elections – from John Whistler, the Financial Agent for the Green Party of Vancouver.
This posting looks at how the LECFA impacts the dynamics between the key participants: electoral organizations and their endorsed candidates, independent candidates and third party sponsors (advertisers).
Traditionally, most candidates in local elections in BC are independent; electoral organizations have tended to emerge only in larger cities, with their endorsed candidates mostly been elected over the independents.
Third-party sponsors add further complexity to this mix. There is debate as to whether third-party sponsors should even be allowed and if electoral organizations are even appropriate for local elections (in particular in smaller communities). There does seem to be a consensus that third-party sponsors need tight regulations, and that there should be a level playing field between independent candidates and candidates endorsed by an electoral organization.
Endorsement from an electoral organization is clearly an advantage for a candidate, though it may also come with baggage and obligations. The electoral-organization advantage brings stronger branding, and administrative and financial resources. In general, the LECFA regulations are stacked against independent candidates – however, some provisions level the playing somewhat.
The contribution limits introduced by the NDP in 2017 completely changed the dynamics of election campaign financing. While the full impact will likely not be fully understood until after a few election cycles, it is apparent that significantly less money will be spent on local elections, leveling the playing field for independent candidates who typically do not have the fundraising capacity electoral organizations have.
The 2017 changes also attempt to level the playing field by making the $1,200 contribution limit apply to both the candidate and electoral organization – the “family”. The $1,200 annual limit for an individual contributor applies to any combination given to the electoral organization and their endorsed candidates. This is a small advantage to independent candidates who can utilize the full $1,200 contribution from individuals rather than it being it being shared within an electoral organization family.
The family advantage for independent candidates is offset in that the $1,200 contribution limit applies to each campaign jurisdiction. There are two families for an electoral organization that has both a city council campaign and a school board campaign. As such, electoral organizations target $2,400 from their generous contributors, not just the $1,200 limit that the public has been led to understand.
The LECFA also attempts to level the playing field for expenses by only giving the candidate a Campaign Period expense allowance. The electoral organization obtains their Campaign Period expense allowance by sharing the expense allowance of their endorsed candidates through Campaign Financing Arrangements (CFAs). CFAs are also a useful tool to improve accountability and can replace the complex regulations and reporting requirements described in previous postings.
In theory, CFAs should level the playing field for independent candidates. In practice, there is little advantage based on the current 28-day Campaign Period. This would change and be more effective if instead the Campaign Period was eliminated and the expense allowance applied to the full election year.
The LECFA gives third-party sponsors a significant advantage over both individual candidates and electoral organizations as they are only regulated during the Campaign Period. They can operate in an unaccountable fashion without any contribution or expense limitations in the Election Period. It would level the playing field somewhat if third-party advertisers were subject to contribution and spending limits for the full election year.
The LECFA does not have requirements for electoral organizations or third-party sponsors to be accountable to the public beyond the financial disclosure requirements in an Election/Campaign Period. They are no incorporation requirements, nor a public membership policy, nor a candidate nomination process, nor a requirement to publish their election platform. As a result, many electoral organizations have opaque membership requirements, may appoint candidates without membership input, and may not publicize their election platform or full financial statements.
Electoral organizations and third-party sponsors are political and exist to influence who gets elected, which then determines government policy and regulations. As such, electoral organizations and third- party sponsors should be held to a higher standard, in a similar fashion that charities are held to a higher reporting standard for the privilege of issuing contribution income-tax receipts.
At a minimum, in addition to annual financial disclosures, there should be reporting requirement that ensures transparency relating to memberships, candidate nominations and electoral platforms. The independent candidate is put at a significant disadvantage when electoral organizations and third-party sponsors have no public accountability beyond minimal financial disclosures.